The prime minister laid the foundation stone of a new parliament building on December 10, 2020, with live national coverage of the event on all TV channels, like always with his events.
If the spirit of parliament resides in brick and mortar this was indeed a great occasion. But if it resides in the healthy functioning of parliament, in the true spirit of parliamentary democracy, then it was a cruel joke. The Indian parliament building was completed in 1927. The British parliament building, the Palace of Westminster was completed in 1860 and, with the exception of repair to the damage caused by bombing during the Second World War, has existed in its old style ever since.
There have been alterations and other adjustments inside but the building has largely remained the same. There is no proposal, to the best of my knowledge, to shift the ‘mother of all parliaments’ to a new building. But the British are not great builders like our present prime minister who will soon take his place as the greatest builder in our history after Shah Jahan; just wait for the Central Vista project to be completed.
But returning to the theme of the spirit of parliament, it is difficult to believe that this spirit resides in brick and mortar. There is no doubt that the soul of parliament rests in its healthy functioning; not in brick and mortar. And what has been the fate of our parliament over the last six years?
The winter session of parliament this year has been postponed in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nothing else has been held up on these grounds, including the laying of the foundation of a new parliament building. So, COVID-19 is being used selectively to postpone events to suit the government. The session would have offered an opportunity to the opposition to hold the government accountable on a number of issues of vital national importance including the farmers’ agitation.
But even if the session had been held, I am not sure if the opposition would have been able to corner the government. Has the opposition been able to hold the government to account effectively over the last six years on any issue? And I am not merely referring to the business conducted by the two houses of parliament during their sessions; I am referring to the functioning of parliament in its totality in which the parliamentary committees play an important role – both in examining legislation and discussing other important issues.
I was shocked to learn from news reports that during the first five years of this government only 25% of the bills introduced in the two houses were referred to the standing committees compared to 71% during the UPA years. In the last 18 months, this number is zero; and the list includes the three highly controversial farm laws. We have not forgotten the unruly scenes in Rajya Sabha where the just demand of the opposition to refer the bill to a select committee was overruled by a government determined to ride roughshod over the demand with the help of a pliant presiding officer.
It is not difficult to conclude that the denigration of the parliamentary standing committees is a denigration of parliament itself and seriously reduces the effectiveness of its functioning. There is little doubt that if the three farm bills had been referred to the concerned standing committee, it would have invited the farmers’ representatives, heard them, included their suggestions in its recommendations and better bills would have been passed avoiding all the complications which have now arisen. I have no doubt in my mind that the bypassing of parliamentary procedures is directly responsible for the current mess. And the government must bear the blame for it.
Over the years the state assemblies have been seriously circumvented in their functioning. Their sessions have become shorter and shorter. Bills are passed in a hurry and without detailed examination including money bills and even the budgets. Members are happy serving in committees and collecting their allowances, legal from the assembly and illegal from the officials. So, the government is happy, the members are happy and the public has ceased to care. So, those who largely have the experience of the working of state assemblies but are at the helm today at the centre, want the parliament also to function like the state assemblies. All this must change if parliamentary democracy has to survive in this country. And it can be done with just a little political will and changes in the Rules of Procedure of the two houses of parliament and similarly of the state assemblies.
First of all, the rules must lay down that parliament will meet for at least 120 days in a year, sixty days during the budget session with a break and for thirty days for the monsoon and winter sessions. The date or day of the month on which the session will be called should also be laid down. Second, the number of working days should also be prescribed keeping in mind the various holidays. Third, the rules should also lay down that all bills will be sent to the standing committees except those on which there is an all-party consensus to the contrary.
Fourth, the power to summon the sessions should vest in the chief executive officers of the two houses. After all, it will be a very routine procedure after the rules are changed. Fifth, there should also be a rule which prescribes how many calling attention motions and short duration discussions will be taken up in a session which will be decided on the basis of consensus amongst the political parties in the business advisory committees of the two houses. Recent experience would show that a partisan presiding officer can play havoc with the rules and effectively destroy what little space exists for the opposition. Therefore, we cannot leave things to the goodwill of the rulers anymore. They must be bound, hand and foot, by rules and procedures which must be followed strictly.
When I was finance minister, the government decided to repeal the draconian and outdated Foreign Exchange Regulation Act and replace it with two new legislations—the Foreign Exchange Management Act and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. When I went took the Bills to Rajya Sabha, where the government did not have a majority, senior leaders of the house like Pranab Mukherji and Mulayam Singh Yadav told me during the debate on the Bill that I should not imagine that the provisions of the Act would be implemented in the same spirit in which we had framed them.
They warned me that in future we might have governments which would use it as a tool of political vendetta. How correct were they? Therefore, they insisted that the Bill be referred to a select committee of the house. I readily agreed. It is another matter that despite all the built-in safeguards the Act is today being thoroughly misused to fix political opponents.
We are today governed by rulers who have little use or patience with the conventions, practices and procedures of our parliamentary system developed over the decades. It could get worse in the future. We must respond to this reality before it is too late. Hence these suggestions. The government may not have any use for them, but will the opposition take note?
Yashwant Sinha is a former finance minister and former external affairs minister of India.